Review – Only God Forgives

Rarely has a film divided critical opinion in recent years as much as Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent, religiously symbolic and uncompromising journey into hell.

A bleak nightmare, Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives doesn't so much enter the void as dives headlong into it

A bleak nightmare, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives doesn’t so much enter the void as dive headlong into it

Following the surprising success of Refn’s man-with-no-name neo-noir Drive, he’s reteamed with star Ryan Gosling, relocated to Thailand and revved up the experimentalism in Only God Forgives.

Although Refn has connected his latest to Drive,  alluding to the fact they both exist in a heightened reality, it actually bears a closer kinship to his lesser-seen 2009 work Valhalla Rising. With its brutal acts of violence, minimalist style, and preponderance for mood over dialogue, the two films share a lot in common.

The ghost-like Angel of Vengeance Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) in Only God Forgives

The ghost-like Angel of Vengeance Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) in Only God Forgives

Critics rounded on the film at its Cannes premiere earlier this year, possibly out of confusion that Refn and Gosling hadn’t given them Drive 2,  but those who balk at the director’s use of violence and stripped-back approach (most notably his fascination with silence) forget these are the qualities that he’s built his career on. His Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising are all stylistic works punctuated by moments of shocking ferocity.

Julian (Gosling) is an expat living in Bangkok whose boxing club is a front for an industrial-scale drug operation. When his brother murders a prostitute and is himself killed out of vengeance, the monosyllabic Julian must not only contend with his domineering and contemptuous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), but also samurai sword-wielding cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Julian (Ryan Gosling) on hisslow descent in Only God Forgives

Julian (Ryan Gosling) on his slow descent in Only God Forgives

If Drive was a pared-down story of heroism akin to a dream, Only God Forgives is its mirror image, a bleak nightmare whose self-loathing lead character is waiting to embrace his own damnation with open arms.

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a modern-day Lady Macbeth in Only God Forgives

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a modern-day Lady Macbeth in Only God Forgives

Indeed, arms feature regularly in the film, be they stretched out with hands open to represent helplessness and a plea for forgiveness, or with clenched fists to show rage and repression. Refn also attaches an Old Testament religious symbolism to these shots wherein Julian is welcoming punishment for his past misdeeds.

This theological inflection is as present as the hellish crimson lighting Refn drenches over many of the scenes. Corridors are given an extra menace, while the empty nightclub in which Julian meets Chang is a barely concealed metaphor for hell’s anteroom.

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets gangster Bryon (Byron Gibson) on side in Only God Forgives

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets gangster Bryon (Byron Gibson) on side in Only God Forgives

As well as being a cop, Chang exudes a supernatural force. Somehow able to produce his samurai sword as if it’s attached to his spine, Chang is referred to as the Angel of Vengeance. During filming, Refn apparently whispered into Pansringarm’s ear that “you’re God”. If he is God, he’s more of the Old Testament kind, the sort who has the power of forgiveness but doesn’t intend on showing any.

Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) in Only God Forgives

Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) in Only God Forgives

Thomas is deliciously repellant as Crystal, a modern day Lady Macbeth consumed by a thirst for revenge at the death of her son and a weirdly incestuous love/hate relationship with Julian. When Julian points out that his brother raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, she replies: “I’m sure he had his reasons.”

Pansringarm is eerily non-expressive as the ghost-like Chang, who seems conjured up from Julian’s tortured subconscious. With only 17 lines of dialogue in the while film, Gosling delivers a tightly coiled performance that deviates between submissive catatonia to moments of explosive rage. He has some of the most expressive eyes in modern cinema which can emote pained puppy dog one second and barely restrained psychosis the next.

Accompanied by Cliff Martinez’s typically excellent score (one that weaves in Eastern influences without ever coming across as rote or lazy), Only God Forgives doesn’t so much enter the void as dive headlong into it.

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26 comments

  1. vinnieh · August 3, 2013

    Excellent post, as you’ve said it certainly appears to be dividing opinion. I couldn’t believe that was Kristin Scott Thomas when I saw, she looks so different from the parts she usually plays.

    • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

      Cheers man. Yeah it’s a bit of a change for Thomas isn’t it? Still, she’s very good in a very unlikeable role.

  2. filmhipster · August 3, 2013

    You pretty much nailed it here, excellent review. I’ve watched it twice now and I can say it was better the second tune around. I agree, it does reach into his past directing like Valhalla, and a little of his Pusher series as well.

    • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

      Thanks for those kind words. Glad you liked it too; I think it’s one of those that needs repeated viewings.

  3. ckckred · August 3, 2013

    Nice review. I was a big fan of Drive, but have been disappointed by the movie’s negative reception, so I’m glad to hear it’s good. That’s really interesting about the movie’s symbolic meaning, Refn’s film’s are more complex than what most critics accuse him of.

    • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

      Thanks buddy. I think critics expected something that Refn had no intention of delivering. Would be interested to catch your review.

  4. CMrok93 · August 3, 2013

    Good review. It’s a very strange flick, but I always found myself intrigued, even if I didn’t exactly know why.

    • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

      Thanks a lot. It’s a real curio, but one I became enveloped by,

  5. bakedmoviereviews · August 3, 2013

    I went to see this last night with my mum….perhaps not the best person to go see this with. Still, I was surprised I liked it so much though. I thought all the performances were great but Kristin Scott Thomas really stood out. It was hard to believe it was her.

    • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

      Quite. It’s certainly a bit different to Four Weddings and a Funeral! Yeah, I imagine seeing it with your mum might be a tricky one!

  6. Chris Chapman · August 3, 2013

    Interesting review, well written and well argued. I still wish this movie had a body so I could kick it down some lighthouse steps though.

    • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

      I take it didn’t have as positive reaction to the film as I did?! (thanks for the kind words)

      • Chris Chapman · August 3, 2013

        No… no I really didn’t. Interested by your comment that critics were turned off because they wanted Drive 2. I felt that a big problem with the film was that Refn actually seemed too concerned with making a spiritual successor to Drive, and in trying to force that, he managed to completely miss the point of why Drive worked in the first place.

      • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

        I hear what you’re saying, but I personally see this as a black mirror of Drive as opposed to a spiritual successor. Just my opinion though.

      • Chris Chapman · August 3, 2013

        I guess this is just an example of that now-infamous divisiveness of the movie! Ha

      • Three Rows Back · August 3, 2013

        Quite! Gotta admire a movie that can divide opinion as much as this one.

  7. Zoë · August 5, 2013

    Hopefully going to see this soon, then I can see what all the divided fuss is about!

  8. Mark Walker · August 5, 2013

    Great write-up here bud! I’m always happy to here more positivity on this one.

  9. The Focused Filmographer · August 7, 2013

    Excellent review. I’ve heard a mix of thoughts on this one and appreciate reading the insight you give. It seems that it’s one of those films that inspires you with visuals on the outside yet makes one consider looking inwardly as the not so complex story develops.
    I’m sure I’ll be checking it out soon.

    • Three Rows Back · August 7, 2013

      Thanks very much for the kind words. The visuals are certainly memorable and complement the scarcity of the narrative and the mood of the story. I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts.

  10. beckybeckyb · August 8, 2013

    basically i’m just reiterating what most people have already said – but good review. I really enjoyed (well, enjoyed is maybe not the right word) Only God Forgives; i think it’s a shame that it’s been so inevitably compared to Drive because really it’s a very different movie and should be judged (ha!) in its own right. I found it quite mesmerising though, and i’ve really enjoyed reading all the conflicting comments about it. It seems to be this month’s Spring Breakers in that respect! (but i thought Refn’s film was far better)

    • Three Rows Back · August 8, 2013

      Appreciate that. It’s one of those love/hate films, one you either willingly get sucked in by or you recoil. Glad to see you ‘enjoyed’ it!

  11. karamelkinema · August 28, 2013

    Hey Chris, i’m doing a review for Only God Forgives for myfilmviews.com 3rd Obstructions Blogathon (http://www.myfilmviews.com/2013/08/01/the-5-obstructions-blogathon-obstruction-3/). The task is to made a review by copy+pasting another reviews of the same films. I’m using some lines of your review for mine, i hope it’s okay and you understand that it was not intended as plagiarism or something like that 🙂

  12. Pingback: Only God Forgives (2013) | kinema kinema to karamel

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